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3 Journaling Methods Used by the Stoics for Self-Improvement

Following the example of an ancient philosopher-king can help change your life for the better.

Stoicism, the ancient school of philosophy founded in Greece in the third century BCE and the most popular philosophy of the Roman empire, is a practical philosophy concerned with how a person ought to live. The most well-known Stoic writings come to us from a handful of Stoics who lived during the first and second centuries CE: Epictetus, a former slave; Seneca, a statesman as well as a playwright; and Marcus Aurelius, emperor of Rome.

In the writings of these three men, each of them mentioned keeping a journal–in fact, the writings of Marcus Aurelius come to us directly from his diary. He kept this diary–known today as Meditations–while on military campaigns, using it as his guide and tool for self-improvement in which he wrote down many things which reflected his take on Stoic philosophy.

The journaling methods found in Meditations are what we can use to learn how to journal like a Stoic. These methods are useful in improving many different areas of your life; from preparing yourself for the day ahead to reaffirming the principles which you desire to live by, these ancient methods are tried and true. 

Take a look at these methods with entries from Meditations as examples–follow the prompt at the end of each section and you’ll be journaling like a Stoic!

Gratitude Journaling

“From my mother: piety, generosity, the avoidance of wrongdoing and even the thought of it; also simplicity of living, well clear of the habits of the rich.”

Meditations 1.3

“From my tutor: not to become a Green or Blue supporter at the races, or side with the Lights or Heavies in the amphitheatre; to tolerate pain and feel few needs; to work with my own hands and mind my own business; to be deaf to malicious gossip.”

Meditations 1.5

The very first chapter of Meditations is dedicated to expressing gratitude. Marcus takes specific people, qualities, or lessons that he has learned from people in his life, and expresses gratitude for those things. He’s specific, stating who or what he’s grateful for and why. In this way, we get a very clear picture of what qualities he admired most in the people he knew.

Following this practice can improve your sense of satisfaction with life in general, but can also help you to increase your sense of gratitude for your friends, family, and other people in your life. An additional benefit of regularly using this method is that if you are honest in your writing, it can also give you a clear picture of what things you value most.

Prompt: Think of someone you know and try to come up with a quality that they have that you admire and are grateful for, or think of a lesson that you were taught by someone and write that down. Do you feel that you have learned to embody that quality which you admire or the lesson you have learned?

Rewriting Your Principles in Your Own Words

“The external things whose pursuit or avoidance troubles you do not force themselves on you, but in a way you yourself go out to them. However that may be, keep your judgement of them calm and they too will stay still–then you will not be seen either to pursue or to avoid.”

Meditations 11.11

In the above entry, Marcus is rewriting a Stoic precept in his own words as if he is teaching it to himself. This method is seen often in Meditations, as it was a common Stoic practice to rewrite Stoic principles in your own words. The idea behind this practice is that repeating these precepts to yourself in your own words helps to keep you mindful of them throughout your life and to make it easier to live by these principles when you are tested.

Prompt: What principles do you live by? When you journal, take a moment to write out one of these principles in your own words. Rewrite it a week later, and again the week after that. Do you feel that you have a better understanding of that principle and have been more mindful of it since you began rewriting it in your own words?

Reflect on the Day and Whether You Lived It According to Your Principles

“First, do not be upset: all things follow the nature of the Whole, and in a little while you will be no one and nowhere, as is true now of even Hadrian and Augustus. Next, concentrate on the matter in hand and see it for what it is. Remind yourself of your duty to be a good man and rehearse what man’s nature demands: then do it straight and unswerving, or say what you best think right. Always, though, in kindness, integrity, and sincerity.”

Meditations 8.5

Just like in the previous method, here is another Stoic journaling method that attempts to keep you mindful of your principles. Here we see Marcus reminding himself of his principles, perhaps after something had happened earlier that day which upset him. 

He writes to remind himself to be aware of his Stoic principles and what he should do to live according to these principles in the future. That way, should a similar event occur after he wrote that entry, he would be better equipped mentally to handle the situation according to his Stoic philosophy.

Prompt: Take some time at the end of your day to reflect on the events of the day. Consider if anything happened that tested your beliefs or principles. Did you fail to live up to these principles, or were you successful in staying true to them? If you failed, write about how you ought to have reacted according to your principles–what could have been done differently? If you succeeded in following your principles, write about what you did correctly as a reminder to yourself to stay true to them when they are tested again in the future.

Conclusion

There are other journaling methods that the Stoics used, but unfortunately there just isn’t enough space here to go through them all. The prompts can be done at any time, but the key to success is to practice consistently. If you go through them once per day, you may see improvement more quickly than if you only do them once per week.

Now that you have seen a little of the Stoic journaling that takes place in Meditations and worked through the journaling prompts, do you feel that using these methods regularly could be of benefit to you?

Bibliography

Aurelius, Marcus, et al. Meditations. Penguin Classics, 2014.

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